Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Release Date: 18 June 2013

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science .Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”: adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.

Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Brontë, Eliot, and Lowell—who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love—whatever the cost.

As a lover of language - how we use it to not only communicate but change the world around us - this book was immediately interesting to me. Words are important, a sentiment uttered more than once in this book and implied throughout. To put it bluntly, words mean things, and should be chosen with care and respect.

I'm not even quite sure what I was expecting of this book anymore, but it does start out running - and you better be prepared to chase after to keep up. You're thrust right into the action, on a bathroom floor as Wil gets a needle shoved into his eye and questions hammered at him. Then there's shooting and running and all sorts of other things being thrown at you. I will say that the book hardly had a slow moment. There was a 10% section somewhere near the middle that didn't seem to be bursting with fights, but that was it. Otherwise it was non-stop. Unfortunately, this didn't exactly appeal to me. I enjoy some good action, but it's characters that I care about most and here the characters never came alive for me.

Honestly, I find I have trouble even describing them. Instead of the actions of the world shaping them, and their choices, I felt like they were players on a stage with pre-determined events. They moved from one event to the next. It was the events that were important here, not the characters.

The language aspect, which I was really looking forward to, was mostly glossed over, or used as a platform to talk about social media, media bias, and speak about society today in general. I enjoyed these thoughts objectively - I've thought them before; that I make too much of myself available on social media and the internet, enabling companies to compile data about me to better sell to me, or convince me of whatever they want. With targeted advertisements flooding websites, it's not hard to believe some of the things the Poets do or plan. I liked this in the same way I like a good debate though, in person. It's interesting and fascinating - but written down it just becomes a bit dry. And these moments - either clippings from news sources about events in the book, or messages on internet discussion boards, or comments/discussion from readers served only to slow the book down and bog down the action. Interesting, but ultimately it felt redundant, and I felt that time could have been better used elsewhere.

More time spent on explaining what the hell is going on would have been appreciated. The book jumps from character POV to character POV, with barely a word that it's happening. It jumps from timeline to timeline to timeline, we're working with about 4 different and distinct timelines here, and it sometimes took me pages to figure out which timeline I was in. I spent the first 30% of the book with no clue as to any of the basic structure of the world, the motives of any of the characters, or the reason things were happening. When I finally did begin to get an idea, I felt like the book was doling out information like it was a precious commodity. Perhaps that's fitting in a book about the importance of words, but I didn't like feeling like a mark that was being 'compromised' - in case you're wondering, they compromise you and make you do whatever they want.

I think it kind of succeeded though because I did end up finishing the book, despite my wanting to DNF it several times. I almost did the last time at 80% of the way in, when I could barely make myself care how it all turned out. I did though, and I can't really determine if I'm glad or not. After the hell the characters were put through in the book it all tied up a bit too neatly for me.

Perhaps this is a case of this book just not being for me. It's possible that what I was hoping for and what I got were simply on widely separate ends of the spectrum. I can't pretend that I enjoyed this book though. I vacillated between confusion, boredom and irritation too much throughout.

Grade: D-

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